Today we finish the second and longest surah.  It has been interesting.  Every topic under the sun . . . with a strong dose of fighting at the end.  But not today.  Today is money!  Ah, another easy topic! 

To be more precise, we focus today on charity.  Almsgiving (zakat) is one of the five pillars of Islam, the foundational practices of a devout Muslim.  Muslims are to give 2.5% of their yearly income to the poor and needy.  Today’s passage gives guidelines concerning this giving.  Christians will hear echoes of Jesus and his instructions on giving in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6).  Give freely, with no strings attached.  Don’t make a show of it or find ways to remind people what you have given or lay a guilt trip.  Give from what you have produced but also from what you have been given.  Support those who are devoted to God’s work and can’t engage in business for a livelihood.  Loan money fairly and responsibly but avoid charging interest (usury) altogether.  Be careful of the Satanic “myth of scarcity” that says you must keep what you have because there is not enough to go around; live instead in the truth of God’s abundance (2:268).  All excellent guidelines for giving.

What struck me in this passage was not the charitable attitude commanded by the Qur’an.  It was the motivation underlying why one ought to be generous in his giving.  Before going any further, ask yourself why do you give financially to others?

We are reminded in this passage that God “sees what you do” (2:265) and is “well aware of the good you give” (2:273).  The point being that we are to “spend [our] wealth in order to gain God’s approval” (2:265).  Three times this passage says those who give will “have their reward” with God for giving (2:262, 274, 277; and 264 for the converse).  The effect of giving (or not) is described in ways laced with atonement language: secret giving “makes amends” for bad deeds (2:271) and failing to give “cancels out” charitable deeds (2:264).  What one gives does not just benefit the one given to but also “benefits your own soul” (2:272) as if the act has a moral effect on the giver’s standing with Allah.  Maybe the best summary is 2:281:

Beware of a Day when you will be returned to God; every soul will be paid in full for what it has earned, and no one will be wronged.

I have often heard people describe the concept of salvation in Islam (if that is not too Christian a term) as very much like a bank account or a weighing balance.  One lives life accruing merit or demerits based on one’s actions.  In the end, Allah will measure the good and bad done by the person and the result with determine one’s eternal destiny.  Ultimately, one’s salvation is very much a matter of one’s own choices.  Of course, this is more nuanced.  Allah can multiply the effect of one’s good deeds.  There is a question of whether you can ever know your daily “bank balance,” if you will.  And maybe Allah has all of this sorted out already through some sort of hard predeterminism and we are only living into our fate.   

Like everything in this project, I am trying to put aside what I have heard people say about Islam and just hear what the Qur’an itself says.  However, what I am hearing in this passage as a rationale for the good deed of almsgiving does, in fact, seem to be very works-oriented, driven by a righteousness derived by one’s own goodness.  You give to please God.  You give to help others, yes, but so as to help yourself as well. 

Is that different from your motivation?  Is that different from the way of Christ?

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